I’m an Asian-American. Do I have to work harder to get ahead?  Anonymous 

Dear Anonymous

Unfortunately, the simple answer is very likely yes.  This answer applies to women and other non-white minorities as well.  So if you’re an Asian-American woman, you’ll probably find it is harder still.

There had been a number of academic studies to demonstrate why it will be harder for you.  In one experiment a number of CV’s were sent to prospective employers.  The CV’s were all identical except for the names.  Anglo sounding names got more responses than names that sounded obviously ethnic (e.g. Asian-American).  In another experiment, a new team member was introduced into a work team.  Before the introduction, a rumor went out that the new member was prone to be argumentative.  After a time, a survey of team opinion to the new member showed that people generally thought the new member was difficult to work with.  In another instance, the same person was introduced to another team but this time, the person was rumored to be an engaged team player.  You won’t be surprised to find that the team generally thought the new member was easy to work with and cooperative.  The obvious conclusions are one, that if you’re not in the “club” it will take an effort to break in and two, preconceptions of you will shape how everyone regard you.

To get “ahead” as an Asian-American, you will have to work to overcome your ethnic heritage and potent stereotypes.   I am not saying that everyone is prejudiced and closed minded.  However, your life experiences tell you that many out there are.  As the experiment with introducing the new team member showed, people’s behaviors can be shaped subtly and sometimes quite easily for or against you.

American culture generally emphasizes the individual.  The people that get ahead in organizations are technically good (or business savvy) and probably also good at self promotion.  Asian cultures tend to emphasize group harmony and discourage self promotion.  We are taught to be reserved, polite and conform to the group.   With this conflict we are disadvantaged from the start.  For example, in writing self performance evaluations, Asian-Americans tend to be modest compared to their colleagues.

Let’s assume you are technically (or business wise) good.  I submit that your “work harder” effort should probably not be directed to improving further your technical skills.  Instead your harder work should be directed to improving your self-promotion (i.e. market yourself).   You should strive to make yourself visible and have your contributions recognized.  I worked in industry a long time and have attended many self improvement workshops.  Two that I found most valuable were 1) how to make effective presentations and 2) acting class.  My recommendation is for you to devote your “work harder” effort here.

Presentations give you the opportunity to stand out as an individual.  A good presentation is engaging, informative, clear, persuasive, and gets your audience to accept your recommendations or call to action.  Try to get your boss to showcase you in a presentation to management.  This is a way to get you noticed.

A good presentation is not just reading the words projected on the screen.  Even a good presentation fails if you cannot convey it properly.  You have to sell it.  You need to be able to reach your audience and come across convincingly and confidently.  This is where the acting class comes in.  Most people are uncomfortable with public speaking.  It takes an effort to overcome our natural tendency to hold back and stay in the crowd.  For me acting class helped me overcome the fear of public speaking and I learned techniques to reach the audience.  I learned how to make eye contact, when to pause for emphasis, to stay on message, to project your voice and to connect emotionally.   This was hard work but essential for my career.  An alternative to acting is signing up for Toastmasters.

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